Reading the Old Testament is kind of like eating a box of assorted chocolates—there are parts that seem all sweet and wonderful, but the next thing you know you are hit with something that makes your face turn sour. Few things in the Bible can create this reaction quite like the Old Testament laws. Sooner or later, every believer has to resolve the issues that arise from those seemingly strange and unnecessary rules God gave to the Israelites thousands of years ago.
Have you ever tried reading through the Bible from page 1 and found yourself stuck at Leviticus? Or have you ever had a skeptic of Christianity throw in your face the unusual Old Testament laws and then pronounce, “Christians like to pick and choose what they believe about the Bible!” Beard lengths, eating shellfish, wearing clothes with mixed fabrics…what in the world are we to make of these confounding parts of the Bible?
While the Old Testament law can seem pretty intimidating, it is not nearly as confusing as it seems. There are several important principles that one needs to keep in mind when trying to make sense of it all. With the right framework in place, the OT laws can reveal a lot to us about God, his call on our lives, and the plan of salvation that was fulfilled in Christ.
The Law of Love
The first thing we need to know is that the OT law is ultimately about love. In Matthew 22:36-40, Jesus was asked by someone which command of Scripture is the greatest of them all. He responded, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” Many people do not realize it, but these are direct quotations from the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 6:5, Leviticus 19:18). Jesus is saying that the sum total of all the law is ultimately about loving God and loving others.
This gives us a great starting point to work from. Since we know that love is the goal of God’s commands, we can look at individual laws and try to determine how they fit that agenda. While admittedly some of the OT laws are very strange upon first reading, we know for sure that they fit into a broader perspective which is intended to move towards love for God and people. Knowing this will keep us from getting off track with our conclusions about the OT law.
Another important thing to keep in mind is the constant refrain in the Old Testament concerning God’s holiness. Holiness is mentioned 171 times from Exodus to Deuteronomy (the primary books of the law), making it a central emphasis within the commands.
For example, God says in Leviticus 11:45 “For I am the LORD who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.” This illustrates the mindset God has behind his commands. The fact that he is a holy God and desires to be served by a holy people is why the OT laws are given. The implication is that unholy people and unholy practices are not fitting in the presence of a holy God.
The word “holy” simply means to be “set apart”. It means that the object that is considered holy is to be treated with special reverence and care. It is to be considered sacred and worthy of honour. Since God himself is the holy object, the people who serve him must also be holy. Unholy people and a holy God simply do not mix.
This helps to explain many of the commands that are given in the law. Things such as special washing before worship or the giving of sacrifices when coming to the Tabernacle all were ways of demonstrating that a person knew they were approaching a holy God. There is no doubt a central purpose for the sometimes tedious laws was to drive home in an unforgettable fashion that God is to be considered with the utmost respect. He is not to be trifled with or addressed flippantly. God established this premise by laying out in great detail and in a variety of ways that he is a holy God and must be treated as such.
A People Called Out From the World
God chose the Israelites to be his covenant people in the era of the Old Testament. This was not because they were any better than other people groups—in fact, the Old Testament reads much like a broken record of the constant Israelite failures. Nevertheless, as God’s chosen people, Israel was to be a holy nation, set apart from the other surrounding nations who served other gods. In order to distinguish his people from those pagan nations, God set forth many of the OT laws for this very reason.
For instance, it was common practice in some ancient civilizations to perform child sacrifice in order to appease the gods. The Ammonites in particular were known to participate in child sacrifice to their god Molech. To ensure the God of Israel was not identified with this practice, a specific law was put in place condemning child sacrifice (Leviticus 20:2-5).
Another less extreme example is the prohibition on tattoos (Leviticus 19:28). One might wonder, what does a tattoo have to do with anything? But historically we know that tattoos were part of pagan worship practices among the Canaanites. Thus, if Israelites were to readily mark their body with tattoos, it would signal to those around them that they are also partakers in Canaanite worship. To use a modern comparison, it would be like a Christian today walking around with a shirt that bore the star and crescent moon symbol that is typically associated with Islam. Such imagery is not consistent with one’s beliefs. In that same sense, the prohibition of tattoos was to relieve any confusion that the Israelites might be participants in pagan idolatry.
It is difficult to know just how many OT laws were given for this purpose, and which specific laws they might be. Leviticus 18 specifically states that some of the laws in that chapter are in direct response to pagan worship practices of surrounding nations. But what of the rest of the law? It is hard to know. This is because good chunks of ancient customs of the day have been lost to history. We know that tattoos were common in Canaanite worship, but what other practices might have associated the Israelites with pagan idolatry? It is at least plausible, if not likely, that some of the more quirky and detailed OT laws exist for this reason. We simply do not know for sure, but because we know that at least some of the unusual laws had solid rationale behind them, we can safely assume that others did as well. It is not a stretch to believe that when the Israelites first heard God’s laws, they would have made complete sense to them, given their knowledge of culture at the time. We must simply admit that the distance between today and the ancient world will create some question marks we can’t resolve, but that does not mean we have no reason to believe that sound logic is behind many of the laws that initially sound strange to our ears today.
Categories of Law
Another helpful tool for understanding the law is to consider how each law breaks down into specific categories. Some theologians have noted that the 613 commands given in the law can be roughly categorized into three major groups: moral law, civil law, and ceremonial law.
Moral law are commands that reveal what God considers to be moral and immoral behaviour. It is essentially God showing us his ethical code. The straightforward command “You shall not steal” in Exodus 20:15, given as part of the 10 commandments, is an example of moral law. It is simply a judgment of right and wrong behaviour. The moral law, unlike the other two categories of law, is something that is still relevant for Christians today.
This is a major source of confusion for many people. Christians are sometimes accused of showing favouritism with the Bible based on the fact that they generally esteem the 10 commandments while overlooking the prohibition against eating shellfish, for example. But this is not actually favouritism at all. Christians are not picking and choosing what they follow from the Scriptures. Rather, rightly understood, Christians are keeping the ethics of the moral law given by God (since they are universal and timeless in nature) while doing away with the civil and ceremonial law as passing realities (more on this in a moment). We can know that Christians are right to pay attention to God’s moral law because the New Testament repeats dozens of Old Testament commands as still binding on Christians for today, and in each case, the command repeated is considered to be part of the moral law.
The second category of law is the civil law. The civil law are the rules and regulations that govern the nation of Israel and its individual communities. It functions much like modern day laws do, for the purpose of giving order and structure to society. Since God did not drop the Old Testament law out of the sky to the entire world, but rather to a specific nation, he included in that law the civil statutes and regulations that should govern them as a people. The civil law taught Israel how to run a court of law, penalize lawbreakers, demand restitution, and so forth. It functioned much like how the court system does today.
The civil law is no longer binding on Christians because we are not the same category of people as the nation of Old Testament Israel. Christians today are part of the family of God scattered abroad, not gathered together in one solitary country. Therefore, we live as those who are attentive to God’s moral law but not to Israel’s civil law. The civil law was given to a specific group of people for that specific time period in history and is not transferrable to other groups of people or other times in history.
The third category of law is the ceremonial law. These regulations include those that taught Israel how they were to conduct their worship practices. It included specific attire for Israelite priests, instructions on how to build the Tabernacle and it’s accompanying instruments of worship (such as the altar, table, etc), instructions for feasts and festivals, and the various sacrifices people were to make to the Lord. It was basically a worship manual for the Jews, God showing them the way in which he desired to be worshipped.
Like the civil law, the ceremonial law is no longer binding on Christians for today. This is because the entire Old Testament sacrificial system was fulfilled in Christ’s atoning death on the cross (Hebrews 7:23-24, 9:12). All that the ceremonial law entailed was ultimately pointing to the coming of Jesus and his once-for-all blood sacrifice. Now that Christ has satisfied the demands of the law, we no longer require animal sacrifice or mediation by a priest. Those were temporary institutions of worship that have been done away with in the New Testament era.
Failing to distinguish between these categories of law has led to a lot of confusion among both believers and unbelievers. The general rule of thumb to follow is this: if a command from the Old Testament law is repeated in the New Testament, it remains binding for believers. Those laws that are not reinforced are part of the era that has been done away with. This is not to say that God has changed his mind or that his commands are inconsistent. Rather, it is to say that God’s unchanging law had to be implemented in a way that fit the context it was entering into. Since the Christian Church and Old Testament Israel are not synonymous realities, we cannot treat them as if each should function the same way. In fact, Scripture explicitly says they should not.
Old Covenant vs. New Covenant
In theological terms, what we are talking about is the different between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. The Old Covenant, which God originally established with Abraham (Genesis 12:1-7), passed away with the coming of Christ. Some confuse this to mean that God himself changed from the era of the Old Testament to the era of the New Testament, but that is not the case at all. God never changes, but how he chooses to interact with humanity sometimes does. In his wisdom, God established at least two eras that would progressively reveal his unfolding plan of salvation over the course of human history.
This New Covenant interacts differently with the law than the Old Covenant does. The New Testament points out a few keys ways in which the New Covenant differs from the Old when it comes to understanding God’s commands in the Old Testament Scriptures. Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews are three books in particular that emphasize and explain the distinction between the Old and New Covenants.
For example, Paul describes the law as holding people captive in the Old Covenant (Galatians 3:23-27). This is because no one can ever obey the entire law. Part of the reason God gave the law was to show people their sin and need for mercy from God. One cannot help but read the Old Testament laws and think to themselves, I’ve broken many of these laws many times over! And that is precisely the point. God wanted to break down man’s self-righteousness and show him his need for grace. Romans 7 is dedicated mostly to explaining this idea further. The law was intended by God to show people their sin and need for a Savior.
It is mistaken to believe that Old Testament people were saved by keeping the law while New Testament people are saved by faith in Christ. Hebrews 10:4 says “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins”. Instead, the law was designed not to take away sin but to demonstrate that (1) sin required the penalty of death, (2) a substitute could die in one’s place, and (3) a final substitute sacrifice was coming. Ancient Israelites, like Christians now, were/are saved by faith (Romans 4:2-3). The law was never intended for the salvation of souls. It’s primary purposes was to show the existence and pervasiveness of sin while demonstrating that forgiveness was possible through the death of another.
Law After Redemption
It is significant that the law was not given by God until after the Israelites were ransomed out of slavery in Egypt. The order of events is intentional. It aims to teach us that the law is not a means to be saved, but rather the fitting response by those who have already been saved. In other words, obeying God does not make one right with God. Rather, being made right with God is what fuels our reasons to obey him. Redemption comes before obedience. God was showing the Israelites that he is their Deliverer and Protector, and therefore they ought to obey him, just as a loving father deserves to be obeyed by his children because he has already proven his love and commitment to them.
As such, the law (especially the ceremonial law) is rich with symbolism. The high priest would function as a mediator between God and his people, just as Jesus is our great High Priest, a mediator between God and his people (Hebrews 4:14-16). The shedding of animal blood in sacrifice for sins was to show the cost of salvation, just as Jesus is the lamb that was slain for the sins of the world (Hebrews 10:10-14).
The law functioned as outward reminders of inward realities. The outward regulations about clothing and washing were intended to show the inward state of the heart. The practice of physical circumcision was to demonstrate the reality of spiritual circumcision (Romans 2:29). The high priest laying his hands on a goat—symbolically transferring sin to it—and releasing it into the woods was an outward demonstration of the inward reality that God has taken our sins away. The entire system is one gigantic foreshadowing of the coming of Christ and the reality of salvation by faith in him through his shed blood on the cross.
With an understanding the like the one given above, the OT law becomes not just a confusing part of the Bible to be avoided, but rather one that is rich with wisdom, teaching, and applicable principles for today. When Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:16 that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,” he is speaking about the Old Testament. Even the Old Covenant system which has been done away with is still “profitable” for Christians. We would be wise to study it and learn from it to aid our spiritual growth and understanding.
The entire Bible is a cohesive unit that progressively builds upon itself. We live in an era where the law has been fulfilled perfectly in Christ, and thus we are freed from being enslaved to it. Instead, we can have Christ’s obedience counted to our credit by faith in him. Our sins can be removed by his death in our place simply by believing on him for salvation. Thank the Lord that we don’t need to perfectly obey the law in order to be loved by him or attain eternal life! If that were the case, we all would be hopelessly lost. But as it stands, God has made a way where there was no other way. He bore the penalty of sin himself so that we could be made right with him and begin an everlasting relationship with our heavenly Father. Love like that can be found nowhere else.
Few things in recent memory have been as divisive as the Trump presidency. Even among evangelical Christians, opinions vary and are at times contentious. This is understandable, but we need to make sure our personal viewpoints are kept in check with what Scripture demands us to believe about Donald Trump. We have no right to go outside of biblical bounds on any matter, and therefore I think it could be healthy to remind ourselves what the Bible definitely says about Trump that we all ought to agree on.
1. Donald Trump is a creation of God and made in His image
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27)
2. Therefore, he is bestowed with intrinsic value is and worthy of dignity
With [our tongues] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God…My brothers, these things ought not to be so. (James 3:9-10)
3. Without God’s forgiving mercy, he is a sinner who will perish forever…and in that sense, he is just like you
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23)
4. God loves him
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
5. We must also love him
Love your neighbour as yourself. (Mark 12:31)
6. Christ died for him
[Christ] is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:2)
7. God desires for him to be saved
The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. (2 Peter 3:9)
8. We ought to desire for him to be saved
Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (2 Corinthians 5:20)
9. We ought to pray for him
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. (1 Timothy 2:1-2)
10. We are to honour him as a God-appointed public official
Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. (1 Peter 2:17)
11. He was raised up to become president as part of God’s providential plan
[God] changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings. (Daniel 2:21)
12. God can turn his heart anytime He wishes
The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will. (Proverbs 21:1)
13. Scripture’s command to use speech for building up also applies to how we speak about him
Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. (Ephesians 4:29)
14. We are to worry more about personal holiness and evangelism than we are about politics
For this is the will of God, your sanctification; (1 Thessalonians 4:3)
15. God is still in control
For kingship belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations. (Psalm 22:28)
The current state of higher education is one of the greatest tragedies in North America today. Institutions that were built on the premise of intellectual rigor, technological advancement, and the shaping of human beings who can contribute to society has been hijacked by the liberal agenda. College and University campuses are now better known for safe spaces and trigger warnings than they are for education. Being micro-aggressed and marching in protests are seemingly more central to the educational experience than actual learning. What once was a central bulwark of society is relegating itself to an irrelevant laughingstock.
Of course I am being over-simplistic in my judgment of post-secondary education. There are decent schools and decent teachers out there. But without a doubt the overarching trend is not towards the building up of young minds but the tearing down of the Judeo-Christian roots of the educational system and Western society. Gone is the concept of objective truth; gone is the notion of universal morality; gone is the reverence, or even tolerance, of any notion of God. These are ideas that have been largely tossed out onto the dump heap and left to rot. It is the first time in North America that we are attempting to march on without these foundations, but the new structure of secular humanism is a wobbly tower that is destined to collapse.
It is a sad experiment we are playing. The lab rats are the precious minds of young people who are buying into the self-centred, intellectually dishonest postmodernism they’ve been spoon fed since kindergarten. And make no mistake about it, that is the agenda of modern education. It is not about genuine discovery. It is about the formation of a specific worldview. Just as Christian Bible colleges aim to produce sound followers of Christ, so mainstream colleges and universities intend to produce sound followers of secularism. I understand that this is to be expected, but it is still lamentable.
As someone who mentors young people, I am sincerely bothered by the future that lies ahead of them. The current education system, especially the post-secondary form of it, is failing to prepare people for the real world. We are now well into this experiment and the results are piling up. Numerous grad students are walking away from their college or university experience $50,000 in the hole and with a degree that hardly opens up any employment opportunities to them. But, on the bright side, they did manage to march against oil companies and cry quietly in their safe space. Groan.
I really care about young people. I want them to flourish and succeed and be all that they can be. I want them to go to college or university and be trained to be critical thinkers, though ideally this training would have already begun years earlier. Some charge Christian folk like myself with blind faith and having abandoned reason, but I could not disagree more strongly. I believe that Christianity, like any other worldview, ought to be thrust into the public sphere for scrutiny and testing. I have put my own faith through such a wringer and discovered that it was up to the task. Unlike some believers, I am not afraid of having my beliefs questioned or having core doctrines challenged. It is only through such a process that a long-lasting faith will form. Young people need to have their beliefs “thrown into the fire” so to speak to see if they can withstand the heat. Truth, morality, and religion are all open for a pummeling, but modern secularism is guarded like a quarterback during practice. The educational system should be part of this idea-testing process, but alas it seems to have abdicated this responsibility due to playing favorites with worldviews.
Here’s the reality: the educational world is not meant to be a safe space. Safe from physical danger, yes, but not safe from the most dangerous force in the world: ideas. Academia is supposed to be one of the main arenas where competing ideas duke it out in a fight to claim superiority. The pursuit of truth requires a sort of intellectual violence against lies. There once was a time when this pursuit was noble and sought after, but that is no longer the case. The whole point of micro-aggressions and safe spaces and trigger warnings is to ward off ideas that one might find personally offensive. Yet how can a mind grow if it is not opposed by differing viewpoints? How can ideas that are better than others rise to the surface if they are not allowed to stew in the same pot? The answer is that they can’t, and what we are left with are young people who are more confident of their own viewpoints without ever having them battle-tested. It is a kind of pride that is totally unwarranted and unearned, much like the the participation trophy that probably still sits on the bookshelf at home.
The “snowflake” cultures of post-secondary schools are troubling for me personally, parentally, and pastorally. As an individual, the coddling of students from ideas other than their own is both dangerous and demeaning. It is dangerous because it fails to allow for the free exploration of ideas and a robust and resilient worldview to be formed. It is also demeaning because it assumes that people can’t withstand intellectual confrontation and be better off as a result. I do not feel this serves human beings well as individuals or as a collective society.
As a father, it is painful to know that I simultaneously want to encourage my children to pursue education and yet also wish for them to steer clear of the destructive liberal ideologies that are not allowed to be questioned in post-secondary education. I have no problem with my children knowing that other beliefs exist out there other than the ones I wish to pass on to them; however, I want my children to discover those beliefs in a setting that encourages a fair fight of ideas, not one that stifles opposing viewpoints.
As a pastor, I am concerned that the young generation has done away with truth and objective morality to the point that humanity will eventually erode into animalism. That is, in some sense, what is already taking place. The secular worldview is one that rejects belief in God but still wishes to borrow some of the benefits of a Christian worldview. For example, the modern notion of “follow your heart” has the possibility of leading to all kinds of moral chaos. What if my heart is telling me that I’m superior to other races? Or that I sexually desire children? Should I still follow my heart then? The secularist would answer “no”, but has no reason to give for why that would be. If there is no God and no absolute morality, then all that is left are opinions. There’s no such thing as right and wrong. Therefore, the education system that seeks to oust God is also ousting the very moral system that our civilization was founded on. It is nothing short of a revolution in the truest sense, but we ought to know that kicking the legs out from under a chair will certainly lead to injury. One glance at college campuses will verify that many students steeped in secularism behave in a way that is not tolerated anywhere else in society. I would rather live in a world that can participate in thoughtful, rational discussion than one that is run by subjective feelings, mob violence, and public shaming of those who don’t fit into the modern mould.
These issues matter to me as a Christian because I care about truth. I care about a flourishing society and the good of all people. I want people to have the abundant life that Jesus came to offer them. The farther away from truth we stray, the farther we separate ourselves from the wholeness that truth can bring. I am convinced that the state of modern education is bent on abandoning any real pursuit of truth, and the inevitable result will be damage to young people and society in general. As long as we continue to create environments that aim to protect ideologies instead of test them, we won’t get any closer to the truth. My heart aches for young people who are growing up in a culture that has so marinated them in these ideas that they can’t even recognize it. Unless somehow common sense, logic, and a hard-nosed pursuit of truth resurrect, our generation will continue to stagnate in safe spaces. A resurrection like that though will require a miracle almost of the same magnitude that left the tomb empty 2,000 years ago.
This year marks the 500th year of the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation began when men such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Ulrich Zwingli began to protest certain beliefs and practices of the Catholic church. Believing the church had strayed from biblical Christianity, they sought to reform the church and bring it back to its true form. Half a millennia later, the differences still exist between Protestants and Catholics and resolution has not been achieved. The reformers eventually developed what became known as the 5 solas, which are 5 core truths that define the essentials of the Protestant Reformation.
I remember the first time I ever read the 5 solas. I was in my early twenties and had recently been re-examining the faith that I grew up with. For the first time in my life, I was reading the Bible for myself. I soon discovered that certain convictions were developing in me as I read Scripture and sought to make sense of it all. I couldn’t quite articulate them, but I could tell when someone else “got it”. Then, one day, I stumbled upon the 5 solas. Immediately I thought to myself, this is it! This is exactly what I’ve been thinking! This is exactly what Christianity is all about! It came as a great relief to me that my blossoming faith was rooted in rich history and that others before me saw in Scripture what I also believed I saw.
Since this discovery, I have learned a lot more about the Reformation, church history, and Christian theology. I have no reservation saying that I am a Christian who stands proudly in the reformed heritage, and the 5 solas to this day still make up the core convictions I carry as a follower of Christ. The more I read Scripture, the more I see these beliefs present in the pages of God’s Word, and the more firmly established they become in my life. They shape my beliefs, my practices, and my preaching. Anyone who has been influenced or discipled by me has been under the influence of the 5 solas—whether I have bothered to tell them or not!
On this 500th anniversary of the Reformation, I’d like to share with you the 5 solas of the Reformation and commend them to you for the health and vitality of your soul.
1. Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone)
Scripture is our highest authority in life. It is the place where Christians formulate doctrines and evaluate practices. Though truth can be discovered in many places, the Bible is God’s standard for truth and all truth must be judged against it. Since the Bible is God’s Word, it is perfect and trustworthy in revealing to us who God is and who we are in relation to him and each other.
I have a saying I regularly use in my Bible teaching: It doesn’t matter what I think, and it doesn’t matter what you think. What matters is what God says. This philosophy shapes the way I preach the Bible. My goal is not to be clever or novel, but rather simply to do the best I can to show people what the Bible actually says. One measure of a good Bible teacher is how well they can help other people see in the Bible what they see themselves. Authority does not come from a pastor, and it doesn’t come from a church. It comes from God’s Word. Therefore the Bible must be absolutely central to guiding a Christian’s life.
Reformed Christians believe that the Catholic church assigns too much authority to the pope, the institution of the church, and the writings of the early church fathers. I tend to agree with that assessment. As such, the Catholic church has formed various beliefs and practices that are hard to square up with what the Bible says. The reformers sought to turn people away from other sources of authority and back to the Word of God, and in that quest I happily join them.
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16)
2. Sola Fide (Faith Alone)
How can a sinner be justified before God? The answer to that question is perhaps the most central belief in Christianity. God is holy and we are not; therefore, God has every right to punish sinners and condemn them for breaking his laws. This is a major problem, since all of us are guilty sinners before God. Is there hope? Can anything be done about this looming dilemma?
The answer from Scripture is that a person can be justified before God by faith alone. Faith in the atoning sacrifice of Christ is the only means by which a person can be saved from hell. Good works will save no one. No one will have their sins forgiven because they have earned it. No one can earn God’s forgiveness, and those who try are destined to be found unrighteous in God’s sight. But those who trust Christ, who have faith in his death on the cross for their sins, are forgiven completely and made right before God.
It is not faith plus good works, or faith plus monetary donations, or faith plus baptism. No, salvation comes through faith alone, and we must be insistent on making that clear; otherwise, we are guilty of preaching a false gospel.
For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. (Romans 3:28)
3. Sola Gratia (Grace Alone)
One way to understand grace is to contrast it with justice and mercy. Justice is when people get what they deserve. Mercy is when people don’t get what they deserve. Grace is when people get what they don’t deserve in a positive sense. The reformers rightly emphasized that every good thing a person experiences is a gift of grace from God, and that the ultimate gift anyone can have—eternal life—is available solely as an act of God’s grace. No one deserves salvation, and no one earns it. It is a gift that God freely bestows.
This means that no Christian should ever have a prideful spirit. No one earns their own salvation, and so no believer should ever look down on anyone else. Any Christian who is prideful has forgotten that their salvation was by God’s grace alone. They didn’t earn it. Rather, it is a gift of God’s generosity. Therefore, the right spirit for a follower of Christ to have is of thankful humility.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
4. Solus Christus (Christ Alone)
The free gift of salvation comes to mankind through one person and one person alone, the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus himself said “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me” (John 14:6). In this remarkable statement, Jesus is claiming himself as the exclusive path to God. While it is a popular idea that there are “many paths to God”, the Bible—and Jesus specifically—says otherwise. Christ alone provides access to God and eternal life, and any other path ultimately leads to death.
Christians have stood on this unpopular and inflammatory claim for 2,000 years, even at great cost to themselves. We do so not because we desire to be divisive, knock down other religions, or think we are superior to others. Rather, we simply agree with Jesus! If he really is the only path to God, then we are compelled to follow him. And because we love people, we desire to point them to the only place they too can find salvation for their souls. Simply put, Christianity is all about Jesus.
And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:12)
5. Soli Deo Gloria (to the Glory of God Alone)
God alone is worthy of glory. He is worthy of our praise and adoration and dedication. Christians seek to live not for their own fame, but for the fame of God’s name. Salvation is ultimately not about boosting our self-esteem, but about God displaying his glory through the death and resurrection of Christ for our sins. That is the greatest act of love the universe has ever known and will ever know. It follows, then, that believers should be dedicated to orienting their lives around God and not themselves. In this way we experience the joy of freedom from self-centredness and fulfill the task we were created to do, which is to glorify God.
So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. (1 Corinthians 10:31)
I believe with all my heart that the 5 solas are a helpful and beautiful way to summarize the Christian faith. They are not equal to Scripture itself, but they do help to rephrase the points of emphasis in God’s Word in a way that is memorable and clarifying. I, for one, am grateful for the work of the reformers, as imperfect as they were. I’ve never felt very comfortable when people refer to guys like Luther as “the great Martin Luther”, but I nevertheless believe that God used the reformers in great ways to strengthen his Church. Protestants are by no means perfect, but I do believe that we are faithful to the teaching of the Bible, and in that belief I commit myself and my life as a minister for God. May the Reformation, 500 years later, continue to propel God’s true and powerful gospel into the world for salvation of many souls!
The violent outbursts that took place this past Saturday in Charlottesville, Virginia have left us all stunned, saddened, and angered. The images of thrown debris, pepper spray, swinging clubs, and bodies flying as a car was driven into the crowd are enough to make one recoil with pure horror. With over 30 injured and one dead, the events are nothing but tragic and heartbreaking.
The racist roots of this event cannot be overlooked. Things went wild when a group of Alt Right protestors (those who believe in the supremacy of whites) was met by an equally passionate mob of the antifa (those who aim to confront racism, by force if necessary). Moments later chaos ensued, and the Charlottesville police force seemed unable to contain the mess. The resulting bloodshed will be on everyone’s mind for the foreseeable future, and rightfully so.
President Trump was criticized for not condemning the racism strongly enough. In his initial press conference, he specifically did not mention any of the groups involved and barely whispered a hint of any racial undertones. It seemed as if he was avoiding it on purpose, and many were quick to assign motives for such misleading talk.
Such an approach is one I cannot accept. My job is not to be a political analyst, and my concerns for this issue are not mainly political in nature. I am a follower of Jesus first and foremost, and as such I believe it is my responsibility to speak up against such evil and violence with conviction, truth, and hope. To my knowledge I have never written explicitly against racism on this blog, something that is not exactly intentional but perhaps overdue to be addressed.
Let me say it clearly: racism is evil. Biblically, it is a sin against God and other human beings. To treat another person as lesser-than simply because of their ethnicity or the colour of their skin—or any reason for that matter—is wicked and vile. Racism has a long history not only in America, but all over the world and all throughout human history. It has always existed and will continue to exist as long as sin remains in this world. But that does not mean we should accept it or fail to fight it. Quite the contrary. We have a moral obligation to oppose it, even at great cost to ourselves.
There are some who have tried to sanction their racism as being an expression of their faith or religious beliefs. This effectively amounts to a double-sin. Anyone who attempts to link their racist thoughts or actions to the Bible, serving God, or Christianity, are either sorely mistaken or intentionally deceitful. They are assigning evil to God, thus adding to their guilt.
Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter. (Isaiah 5:20)
Christians have not always been innocent of racism. I am not naive to this fact and I am not happy about it. But a true reading of Scripture makes it clear that racism is morally wrong and punishable by God. It is one expression among many of the fallen nature of man, and certainly one of the most grotesque ones at that.
The Bible declares that human beings are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) and therefore have inherent dignity, value, and worth. Showing prejudice against others is considered a sin (James 2:9), and God himself shows no partiality toward anyone (Romans 2:11). One reason Jesus Christ came was to break down “the dividing wall of hostility” between people groups and create one human race under his loving rule (Ephesians 2:14). God’s offer of salvation is open to any person from any people group without exception (Galatians 3:28). Heaven will one day be the most multi-ethnic place in the universe, filled with people “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Revelation 7:9). The final state of mankind will be one where racism and all sin is eradicated and God reigns over those who love him and follow Christ, living in perfect peace and harmony (Revelation 21:1-4). Until that time we are to treat others as we wish to be treated (Matthew 7:12) and share the gospel with every people group on the planet (Matthew 28:18-20).
It appeared to many that all hell broke loose when violence erupted in Charlottesville. This is not exactly true. All hell broke loose a long time ago when sin entered into the world. Racism is evil and therefore will one day be banned forever to hell, exactly where it belongs. When I say, “to hell with racism”, I mean it quite literally.
Until then, I am calling on my brothers and sisters in Christ to take a stand against racism. We have the most potent weapon against it of all—the gospel of Jesus Christ. This gospel is the good news that God forgives sinners and makes them a part of his family. God is unifying this broken humanity in which we live, and of which we are a part, and redeeming it for his glory and our good. I am a part of that story, and I invite you to be a part of it too. We cannot be silent or fearful in such times. Love compels us to speak up and seek change.
I would like to add one final thing. To those who are racist themselves, who believe they are superior to another based on ethnicity, I say this: I do not hate you. Others might, but they should not hate you either. Hate cannot be overcome by hate. It can only be overcome by love. Not only do I not hate you, I actually love you. And far more importantly, God loves you too. He desires better for you than the pride of racism that you are living in. He is calling you away from the darkness and into his light. God will forgive you of your sin if you repent and follow Christ. He will begin to heal the hate that enslaves you and set you free to love and be loved. There is a better way. You can choose it if you want to. But please know that to reject his offer is to reject him personally, and that will not end well for you. As far as I can search my own heart, I am not a racist person. But that does not mean my hands are clean. I am a guilty sinner like everyone else. I do not speak to you from a position of superiority—that itself would be sinful pride! Instead, I am inviting you to find what I have found: new life in Christ, a place where sinners can be forgiven and renewed by the power of God. In Christ there are no favourites, but we are all precious in his sight. You cannot redeem yourself, but you can be redeemed. And you need to be redeemed. There is hope. Don’t let it pass you by.
As a Christian who many might call “conservative”, I hold to the historical, orthodox doctrines of Christianity. I believe the Bible is God’s Word, that Jesus is the son of God, that he came to earth via virgin birth and lived a sinless life and died for the sins of man, that he rose again three days later and ascended into heaven. All who turn from sin and trust in Christ will receive forgiveness of sin and eternal life. Heaven and hell are real and forever and God will separate those based on their righteous or unrighteous standing before him and reward or punish accordingly. And so on and so on…you get the idea.
These kinds of traditional Christian beliefs have come more and more under fire in recent years, and not just by those outside the Church, but also by those who profess to be Christian. The authority and truthfulness of God’s Word, the deity of Christ, the acceptability of other religions, the view of homosexuality and gay marriage, among many other hotly debated subjects, are increasingly divisive issues within the body of Christ. There are those who hold to historic, orthodox views, and those who set out to challenge the Christian norm.
Among those who push back against traditional biblical doctrines, one of the common mantras they use is that they are questioning widely-accepted interpretations of the Bible in an effort to begin “a conversation”. We should not just believe whatever we are told to believe, they might say, but we should question things. I am simply pushing the status quo in an effort to start a conversation.
Within the past 15 years, the movement that became known as the Emergent Church is a good example of this kind of mentality. Leaders such as Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, and Doug Pagitt sought to take the fundamental truths of Christianity and put them out onto the table for open discussion. No subject, however strongly held by Christians over history, was off-limits. As a result, many Christians picked up this mentality and began to question everything they ever knew about their faith, and various aberrations of orthodox Christianity were formed.
Whenever such a person is criticized by a “conservative” Christian for abandoning sound doctrine, the retort is always the same. All you ever do is shut people down. You are demanding that everyone fall in line with YOUR interpretation. Well, there are lots of different interpretations. I’m just trying to open up a dialogue and have a conversation about it.
Now, to be clear, there is merit to that kind of a response. People ought to question what they are told and be able to voice concern over doubts that they have. The Church should be a place where people can be honest about their questions and talk about them without being pounded into submission. This kind of theological exploration is crucial to someone’s faith becoming their own, and it is a key part of my own story. To that I give my hearty endorsement.
But there is a problem too. It appears that some people are happy to raise doubts about traditional Christian teaching, but have little desire to actually resolve those concerns with any real conviction. They want to be able to question everything, but not actually seek out answers. They want to live in the place of open-mindedness permanently. They want to start a conversation but have no real desire to conclude it.
I was confronted recently by another Christian who accused me of forcing other people to accept my “narrow-minded” interpretation of Scripture. She said that not everyone who loves Jesus agrees with my theology and therefore I have no right to make the kind of “arrogant” proclamations of truth that I do as a pastor and Bible teacher. To be fair, there is a measure of truth to this. I don’t see my job as beating people over the head with Scripture, but rather as helping them see what I see in the Bible for themselves. I have no inherent authority; only the Word of God does. Therefore I consider it my job as a teacher to show people what the Bible says as best as I can, and if they agree that it is really there, then believe it. If not, keep searching. The Bible commends the Bereans for taking such an approach when it came to hearing the Bible taught and calls it a “noble” practice.
 The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue.  Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. (Acts 17:10-11)
The point is that there is a place for conversation. There is a place for dialogue in discovering the truth. A person should feel free to ask a pastor, I know you said this in your sermon, but what about what the Bible says over here? It seems to be a contradiction, or that your interpretation might be off. I have read before someone teach it differently than you did. Can you explain this to me some more? Any pastor worth their salt would not freak out in such a situation, but take the time to work more on the issue at hand. This is a wonderful thing and ought to be happening a lot in Christian discipleship.
But the problem arises when people want to question everything without trying to find an answer. They are not actually after the truth, but merely the freedom to question the truth at every turn. This kind of mentality is unhealthy and spiritually destructive. It attempts to keep God free from any box that Scripture might seem to paint him into…even though God declares things about himself that squarely put him into a box!
It also gives off a false sense of humility. You are arrogant in thinking that you are right when other godly Christians disagree with you. At least I’m humble enough to know I might be wrong! On the surface this seems like humility, but it is actually a form of pride. Refusing to take a stand on a particular doctrine is itself taking a stand. It is declaring that there is only one way to view the topic (with an open mind), which is quite a closed-minded view towards those who have a doctrinal position on the matter. It is saying, you are wrong to believe what you believe, which is exactly what I am saying to you. So, in reality, we both have a firmly entrenched view that we believe to be the right one. Neither of us is necessarily more arrogant than the other.
In his book What Does the Bible Actually Teach About Homosexuality?, Kevin DeYoung says the following:
“Talking is not the problem. The problem is when incessant talking becomes a cover for indecision or even cowardice. As one who has pastored for more than a dozen years in a mainline denomination, I have seen this far too often. It’s death by dialogue. The conversation never stops after reaffirming the historic position. There will always be another paper, another symposium, and another round of conversation. The moratorium on making pronouncements will only be lifted once the revisionist position has won out. Every doctrine central to the Christian faith and precious to you as a Christian has been hotly debated and disputed. If the “conversation” about the resurrection or the Trinity or the two natures of Christ continued as long as smart people on both sides disagreed, we would have lost orthodoxy long ago.”
I agree completely. There is nothing wrong with having a conversation about doctrine, but the point of that conversation is to come to a conclusion. A conversation that is perpetually open-ended is not helpful at all. It is death by dialogue. Instead, conversations about Christian doctrine ought to help people discover the truth with enough confidence that they can stand firm on it, even in the face of opposition. To simply talk about theology without having a theology is no virtue at all.
So, when it comes to questions and conversation, I want to see it happening. Let’s talk! But only if the goal is to resolve disputes, not revel in them. Discussing personal doubts can be an incredibly valuable thing, but just know that there is an end goal in mind. The goal is to resolve those doubts as best as possible so that God can be truly known and truly loved. That is the whole point of theology. But to purposefully question everything without believing anything means that God is neither truly known nor truly loved. How frustrating it must be for God to reveal himself to us in his Word only to have us constantly ask, I wonder what God thinks about this? We dishonour God and do a disservice to ourselves when we refuse to listen to God’s plain voice.
In fact, that is the core problem since the beginning. The serpent caused Eve to doubt by asking, “Did God really say…?” Such questions are not dangerous if we are attentive to God’s Word. But when we live in the realm of dialogue and not truth, we are a sitting duck for the tactics of the enemy. They worked back then, and they still work now.
It is a terrifying thing to discover that everything you have believed to be true your entire life might be a lie. This is the place I was in as an 18-year-old student finishing up high school in 2005. But first, let me explain how I found myself inside a worldview that was collapsing around me.
I grew up in a Christian home with a mother and father who were devout Evangelical Christians. Our family went to church every Sunday since I was a little baby, and we were raised to believe in God and have faith in Jesus Christ as our Saviour and Lord. Most of my extended family and many of my friends shared these beliefs, and so I was raised in somewhat of a Christian bubble. I don’t think this was intentional on my parent’s part, it was simply the natural outcome of being surrounded by people who had the same faith.
Of course, I still knew people who weren’t Christians, both in my family, in my school, and in my neighbourhood. I cared for these people and enjoyed them very much, but I had a sense deep down that they were missing out on something they needed because they did not share my Christian faith. Sometimes I would be brave enough to talk about it with them, other times I simply wanted to fit in like any other kid. As a result, I spent much of my high school life vacillating between two inner personalities: one that was unashamed of Christ no matter the cost, and one who tried to fit in and be liked by people. I later discovered this was a miserable way to live, because it meant I was never really my true self at least half of the time, only pretending to be.
That was until around age 17 when I began to wonder which version was the real me. Was I actually the devout Christian who struggled with compromise, or was I slowly emerging from immaturity into a reasoning man who had no need for fairy tales?
This was right around the time of the rise of the New Atheists. New Atheists, unlike your “ordinary” atheist, don’t just merely disbelieve in God. They also see squashing all religious belief as necessary to the advancement of the human race. While most atheists are content to let other people believe what they will and extend a measure of tolerance, New Atheism had no intent on extending such courtesy. New Atheism explicitly existed for the purpose of freeing mankind from archaic belief in an imaginary sky fairy, and needed to succeed in this quest at all cost, because the survival and flourishing of our species depended upon it.
And so here I was in my late teens, experiencing the existential crisis that every person does sooner or later, confronted head on with a cultural movement that attacked the very foundation I stood upon. For the first time in my life I realized that I believed Christianity was true only because I had been told by everyone around me that it was so. Most of the people I looked up to were believers. They all agreed with me that I was on the right track and needed to rescue others from their lost condition. But it struck me one day that I did not believe Christianity was true for any reason of my own. I was simply riding on the coattails of confidence that other people had in their own faith.
The New Atheists presented a challenge. The “four horsemen” as some have called them—Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett—began writing books, doing interviews, and posting lectures online that mounted to a full-on assault of religious belief. Never before had I been presented with arguments so direct, so articulate, and so menacing for the atheistic view. I used to think atheists just buried their heads in the sand and ignored the obvious…but now I was being presented with reasons why religious belief is a joke. And these reasons were ones that I had no answer for. I was shaken to my core.
Statements that packed a punch sent me reeling, dazed and confused. Things like:
“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” (Richard Dawkins)
“On the subject of religious belief, we relax standards of reasonableness and evidence that we rely on in every other area of our lives. We relax so totally that people believe the most ludicrous propositions, and are willing to organize their lives around them.” (Sam Harris)
“We keep on being told that religion, whatever its imperfections, at least instills morality. On every side, there is conclusive evidence that the contrary is the case and that faith causes people to be more mean, more selfish, and perhaps above all, more stupid.” (Christopher Hitchens)
“To put it bluntly but fairly, anyone today who doubts that the variety of life on this planet was produced by a process of evolution is simply ignorant—inexcusably ignorant, in a world where three out of four people have learned to read and write.” (Daniel Dennett)
Titles like The God Delusion, god is Not Great, and The End of Faith all declared with such certainty that I was foolish to believe what I grew up believing. Their contents provided pages upon pages of scathing rebuke for the vileness of religion, God, and belief in the Bible. The message was clear: only idiots or complete sociopaths believe this stuff, and the rest of the world is moving forward. Either join us or be left behind.
I was left with some serious problems that needed reconciling. I did not want to be duped into believing something that wasn’t true. I did not want to have blind faith. I did not want to cling to religion or God, even if it offered comfort in the midst of tragedy. I needed to discover for myself if what I believed had any rational, scientific, historic, or philosophical backing to it. I needed to find solid answers for big questions.
I set myself to pursuing the truth. As much as I could, I tried to take an honest look at the arguments from both sides with an open mind. In all honesty, I was ready to walk away from Christianity if that’s what the results of my findings demanded I do. I refused to any longer follow a belief system without being able to provide a convincing rationale for doing so. I needed to find a worldview that made sense of the universe and was grounded in reality.
Someone once told me that no one learns without first having a problem to solve. I believe this to be true. I was always an 80’s student in school, but I never actually tried to learn much of anything. I just did what I needed to do to get good grades. Yet this endeavour was much different. I found myself reading books for the first time. I discovered an intellectual vibrancy which I didn’t realize I possessed. And I became skeptical. I believed that everyone I listened to had an agenda for winning me over. In short, I discovered critical thinking. Too bad it came that late for me, but better late than never.
Not only was I consuming everything I could find from the New Atheists, but I stumbled upon a world I had never known existed before, the world of Christian apologetics. Here I found people who were far smarter than I, far more educated than I, some even world-renowned scientists or philosophers or historians or scholars, who believed everything I have believed since I was 5 years old. If these people couldn’t help me answer my questions, no one could.
And so my reading list doubled. I began consuming everything I could from Christian apologists and scholars like Ravi Zacharias, Don Carson, Timothy Keller, William Lane Craig, Josh McDowell, C.S. Lewis, J.P. Moreland, and Craig Blomberg. With the rise in popularity of YouTube, I was able to watch dozens of debates between these two groups and assess for myself who’s arguments weren’t up to snuff. While I had no idea how to counteract many of the critiques from New Atheism, I found that there actually were intelligent answers to many of the objections that were raised. To be fair, I did not always find the Christian counterpoints convincing. At times I found myself wincing at what I heard or read, seeing what I assessed to be a critical flaw. But there was certainly more to this discussion than I had ever realized.
This process lasted several years, but one day I had an awakening of sorts. Without even realizing it, it dawned on me that I could never accept atheism as a tenable worldview. This did not mean I was ready to re-accept Christianity, but I knew for certain that atheism didn’t hold enough weight to be the thing I built my life upon. It simply couldn’t be true. There were too many inconsistencies, too many logical flaws, too many problems to overcome. I determined at worst I was an agnostic and at best a theist.
From this point I found the journey much easier. Agnosticism is a challenging view to investigate, since it is simply a shrug of the shoulders that says, Who knows? This of course is true. It’s not as if I could put a bunch of chemicals into a test tube and by the end of the experiment prove God existed, or that I could put a bunch of raw data into a computer and have it spit out the best religion. Therefore I set agnosticism aside and figured I would consider what world religions and various pagan spiritualities had to say.
It did not take long for Christianity to stand out from the crowd. There are a few things that make Christianity unique among religious viewpoints, but the most prominent of the bunch is Jesus Christ. Every other religion has a god that can’t be seen or known, or at best can be described as a feeling or force, but Christianity gave me something concrete to examine: the life of a historical figure who was supposedly God in the flesh. It’s hard to refute the belief that god is in all things; how can you even test such a hypothesis? But if ever there was a religious claim that could be refuted it ought to be the Christian claim about Jesus, that he was a real person who lived at a real place at a real time in history, whose life is accurately recorded and preserved in the Christian Scriptures. There are so many opportunities to be a caught in a lie when religious belief is grounded in something so historical and real. Therefore, Christ and the reliability of the Bible became the focal points of my studies.
What I uncovered dumbfounded me. While so many are quick to dismiss the claims of Scripture, I was blown away to find how much support their is for its historicity and reliability. It became apparent to me that many of the criticisms of Christianity were not grounded in truth. Attacks on the Bible, which originally seemed insurmountable, were largely cleared up with a simple examination of the evidence. Alternative accounts of Christ were exposed as the obvious manipulations they are by merely fact-checking with known history. Over time I found that the endurance of the Bible and the unrelenting centrality of Christ in human history were warranted. As it turned out, the New Atheists were just blowing a lot of smoke.
In short, I believe I discovered the truth.
So, over a decade later, here I am, an Evangelical Christian and proud of it. Only I’m not the same. I’m more confident than ever in my belief that Jesus is the God-man and that the Bible is God’s Word. Once upon a time, I would have said that without having much to back it up. But now I am much more prepared to have my faith challenged. I don’t feel like I’m standing on shifting sand anymore, ready to be crumbled by the slightest distress. Instead, I have a faith that is built on a rock. It is a faith that has been tested and stood firm. It has proven reliable, rational, scientific, historical, and philosophically sound.
And, quite strangely, I owe it all to the New Atheists. Without their influence, I never would have questioned my faith the way I did. It would have remained frail and untested and unlikely to survive. I would never have been able to keep my belief that God is good and that he loves me in spite of having to bury my first child. I most certainly would not be a Christian pastor who has dedicated his life to building solid faith into others who are looking for answers. I would not be who I am today.
So, New Atheist friends, I want to say thank you. I know you intended to bring people like me crashing down in unbelief, and it almost happened, but that’s not how things ended up. You did manage to produce a committed evangelist, however…just not the kind of one you were hoping for.
God created human beings as worshipers. There is something within the human heart that responds to a sight of glory with adoration and praise. This is true of both religious and non-religious people. Worship, though a religious term, is simply being devoted to someone or something. It is showing reverence and honour towards something. It is making a sacrifice in order to protect or procure something. In other words, every person on the planet is a worshiper every moment of every day, because we all are devoted to someone or something that captivates our hearts. For us this becomes a functional god.
In his book Doctrine, Mark Driscoll puts it this way:
Worship is not merely an aspect of our being but the essence of our being as God’s image bearers. As a result, all of life is ceaseless worship. Practically, this means that while worship does include corporate church meetings, singing songs, and liturgical forms, it is not limited by these things, defined solely as these things, or expressed only in these things, because worship never stops. Rather, we are continually giving ourselves away or pouring ourselves out for a person, cause, experience, achievement, or status.
Whatever most dominates our affections is what we worship. And without the power of the Holy Spirit, no person ever worships God. In our sinful nature, we worship and serve created things rather than our Creator (Romans 1:25). We always choose someone or something other than God to be the object of our affections and the desire of our heart. We are all, therefore, idolators.
Idolatry is hard to spot sometimes because it comes in different forms. Some idolatry is obvious, and some idolatry is subtle. But we know from Scripture that idolatry is universal among human beings, and so we would be wise to take a closer look.
I would like to suggest three forms idolatry can take. Perhaps it may help us examine the idols in our lives that rob God of the glory he is due.
1. Pagan idolatry
When people think of idols, usually the first thing that comes to mind is some ancient or uncivilized tribe who are bowing down to an image carved out of stone or wood. This most certainly would fit the category of pagan idolatry. Pagan idolatry is the easiest to spot because it takes on the most obvious forms: some kind of ceremony or ritual that is performed to a deity that is not the God of the Bible.
Pagan idolatry is characterized by practices that are explicitly spiritual in nature but do not involve God the Father, Jesus Christ, or the Holy Spirit. Rather, it may be for some other named or unnamed god. Things like yoga in its truest form, attempts to connect to nature, bowing down to idols, transcendental meditation, and the like, are examples of pagan idolatry. This would also include Hinduism, Buddhism, and forms of nature-driven spirituality. Other kinds of pagan idolatry might include the use of ouija boards, crystal balls, tarot cards, reading the stars, reike, and the like.
2. Secular idolatry
Unlike pagan idolatry, secular idolatry is harder to spot. This is because it is generally free of religious language or typically spiritual practices. But don’t be deceived, it is just as real and just as damaging! Secular idolatry is practiced even by those who don’t consider themselves to be religious in any way. It is the most common form of idolatry in our modern western world.
The gods of our culture include sex, money, power, physical appearance, family, romance, fame, leisure, celebrities, success, food, comfort, image, and the like. People, religious or otherwise, give themselves away to attain these things. They give themselves away in order to to get them and to keep them. They dominate their lives in a way that mirrors religious devotion.
It works something like this. Someone has a false idea of what heaven is, a false idea of what hell is, and they turn to a false god for deliverance. For instance, a teen girl might think the worst thing imaginable is to not be the object of a boys affection. For her, this is hell. On the flip side, the best thing she can imagine is for a cute boy to be totally enthralled with her. This seems to her like heaven. Therefore, in order for her to get out of her functional hell and into her functional heaven, she needs a god to save her: a boy who likes her. Though almost no teen girl would say her boyfriend is a god to her, she often will act like it. He is her first thought in the morning and her last thought before sleep. He is the one who is trusted to take away her loneliness and bring meaning to her daily life. He is the source of her happiness and self-worth. And she is willing to do anything to please him and stay on his good side.
In other words, the boyfriend is her god. She is practicing secular idolatry.
Everyone in North America struggles with secular idols. We all have hearts that turn away from God and to other things to solve our problems and meet our needs that only God can really do.
3. Religious idolatry
The third form of idolatry is religious idolatry. Religious idolatry seems like worship on the outside but is not the real thing at all. Churches are full of religious idolatry because there are always people who go through the motions of religious practices without ever engaging them with their heart.
Imagine a person who goes to church faithfully every week. They sing the songs, listen politely to the sermon, put money into the offering, and perform the various rituals that are expected of them, such as taking communion and being baptized. Because this individual is doing all of the religious things expected of them, they assume that they are in God’s good graces. But in fact they are committing idolatry. Their false god is the religious practices themselves, not what the religious practices point to.
Jesus regularly butted heads with the Pharisees of his day, because they were devoted to their religious traditions without having any real love for God. They trusted in their performance, not God, to save them. They believed that their external holiness meant they were internally holy as well—yet Jesus called them beautiful graves with dead mens bones inside (Matthew 23:27).
There are millions of very religious people who are guilty of religious idolatry. One example is the Holy Doors of Mercy located in St. Peter’s Basillica, Rome. The Catholic church declared a Year of Mercy in 2016 and said that the Holy Doors in Rome would be opened for a limited time, and anyone who passed through the doors would have their sins absolved. This is classic religious idolatry. It is trusting that somehow a doorway can do something only God can do. God alone can forgive sins, and he does so simply by a repentant sinner asking for forgiveness (1 John 1:9), not by passing through a doorway or any other activity, religious or otherwise.
The reality is this: God is real and we were made to worship him. Yet there is only one way to truly worship the One True God: through faith in Jesus Christ. Sin separates us from God, but through Christ we can have the barrier of sin removed and be reconciled to God, freed from the idols that enslave us. Jesus said in John 5:23
Whoever does not honour the Son does not honour the Father, who sent him.
This means to be a worshiper (which we all are) without honouring Jesus is by definition idolatry. Step one of turning from our idols and worshiping God is to honour the Son, Jesus Christ. When we submit ourselves to Christ, and believe on him and Saviour and Lord, we begin a life of worship to God. And a life of worship to God through faith in Christ is the most freeing, life-giving thing a human being can ever experience.
Everybody loves to talk about God’s love. The love of God is a concept we can receive quite easily…after all, what’s not to love about us? (Read sarcastically.) We are fond of the idea of a God who is fond of us, a God who’s love and patience and compassion knows no limits. We all want a God who loves us, and that is exactly what the Bible says God is like. 1 John 4:8 says it so simply, “God is love”. The God of the Bible is a loving God and we are exactly right to say so.
And yet the Bible has a few other things to say about God as well. In addition to speaking of his love, the Bible also speaks about God’s wrath. Some 600 times the Old Testament refers to the wrath of God. The New Testament also speaks regularly of God’s anger, and Jesus himself speaks more about hell and final judgment than anyone else in the Scriptures. There’s no doubt that if you read the Bible in its totality, you are confronted with both a God of love and a God of wrath.
This really trips some people up. A God of love I get, but a God of wrath? What’s the deal with that? Because we bristle at the idea of God’s wrath, more and more people are trying to deny that aspect of God’s character. Not only do faintly religious people deny God’s wrath, but more and more those who are committed Christians are also trying to dismiss the idea of an angry God. It is quite fashionable these days to highlight the love of God while ignoring the wrath of God. Many pastors and Bible teachers are happy to speak of God’s love but avoid speaking of his wrath like a cat avoids water. Yet this is clearly a tactic to skirt the obvious, that Scripture paints us a picture of God that includes wrath and judgment.
It’s a natural question to ask: If the Bible presents God as having both love and wrath, how can those two qualities exist together? How can a God of love also be a God of wrath?
Though this question presents a challenge for many people, I believe the answer is a lot more obvious than we might expect. The reason God can be both loving and wrathful is because those emotions go hand-in-hand, not only for God but also among human beings. In order for God to be a God of love, he by necessity must also be a God of wrath. If you try to remove the wrath of God, you actually are creating a God of less love.
Think of it like this. When you love someone deeply, you care a lot about their well-being. You desire what is best for them. You want things to go well for them. You hope that they can create a wonderful life for themselves and that they are fortunate enough to avoid grief and hardship. That is the normal outworking of love for another person.
Then, I would ask, how would you feel if you saw your loved one making terrible choices with their life, if they were self-destructing before your very eyes? What would your response be if they were squandering so much potential and making life so much harder for themselves than it needed to be? The answer is that you would be upset about it. You would be sad, you would be disappointed, and you might even be a little angry.
Author Becky Pippert hits on this point in her book Hope Has Its Reasons. She says:
“Think how we feel when we see someone we love ravaged by unwise actions or relationships. Do we respond with benign tolerance as we might toward strangers? Far from it. … Anger isn’t the opposite of love. Hate is, and the final form of hate is indifference… Human love here offers a true analogy: the more a father loves his son, the more he hates in him the drunkard, the liar, the traitor… [Similarly], if I, a flawed narcissistic sinful woman, can feel this much pain and anger over someone’s condition, how much more a morally perfect God who made them? God’s wrath is not a cranky explosion, but his settled opposition to the cancer of sin which is eating out the insides of the human race he loves with his whole being.”
In other words, God is a God of wrath precisely because he is a God of love. He loves his creation and when he sees it being destroyed, it bothers him. He’s not happy about it. He desires better for us, because he loves us.
It’s not just that we (and God) get upset when people ruin their own lives. We also get mad when we see other people ruin the lives of those we love. When someone we care for is wronged, we rightly feel outrage. That outrage is an expression of love. We feel a deep-seated sense of anger that someone we love experienced unnecessary or unjust pain. And, not surprisingly, God feels the exact same way.
When God looks down on earth and sees injustice, when he sees adultery, when he sees abuse, enslavement, violence, neglect, rip-offs, lying, cheating, manipulation, coercion, slander, bullying, and divorce, what do you think he feels? Well, he feels exactly the same way you and I do. He hates it. He is angry. He doesn’t want it to be that way. What kind of a sick God sees the horrors that are committed by humanity and isn’t bothered by it? If God were to look upon the darkness of our world and meet it with a shrug of indifference, he would not be a God of love. His love demands that he respond with anger.
This is why it makes perfect sense that God is both a God of love and wrath. In fact, he cannot be one without the other. His love for his own creation makes his wrath a necessary part of his character. A God without wrath is not a God of love, at least not in a world where sin runs rampant. The mess and implosion that humanity finds itself in, God’s beloved creation, wells up within him a sense of frustration and anger over the whole thing. It is precisely his love that brings about such a response.
Most of the time I love being a pastor, but there are some things about the role that can be very frustrating. One of them (speaking for myself anyways) is when people act differently around me than they do in normal life, simply because I’m a “pastor”. Being in youth ministry, I see this all the time. Students have their regular, day-to-day life that they live out with their friends and family. For the most part, they let their guard down and just are who they are without giving it a second thought. Then, as soon as they get around me, a switch happens. Suddenly their language is different, their interests are different, their perception of life is different, and it is all faker than a face-lift on an aging supermodel.
I hate fake. I don’t care much for fake anything—knock-off brand cereal, flopping in the NBA, or auto-tuned singers. But I get especially annoyed when people are being fake. I think that as a pastor, I tend to get the fake version of people more often than the average Joe. I guess the perception is that I’m supposed to be some kind of holy man and so people should act holy around me. Next thing you know, people who normally cuss like sailors are talking like Mother Theresa. People who normally don’t give God three seconds of thought in the day are great theologians. And people who are sleeping around and partying on the weekend are really into the Newsboys and want to make sure I know about it.
It’s really not much fun being around fake people. It can be quite lonely. Rather than actually having a meaningful conversation with someone, I have a pretend conversation with them. They play the part, I nod along, and then it ends. They never showed their true colours, I never got any real chance to show genuine love for who they really are, and the whole thing is a waste of time. Most of the time I can tell when someone is being fake, even if I never let on that I know. I just play the game and hope one day the jig will be up and we can actually have a relationship that is real.
That’s why I appreciate whenever someone is brutally honest with me. I don’t even care if they disagree with me on just about everything I believe in—at the very least we can have a real, meaningful interaction. No faking, no acting, just talk and see where it goes. I love that kind of thing. When I walk through the halls of a high school or the mall, I see students I know in their natural environment. I hear how they talk and what they talk about. I see who they are around their peers. And even though it may include a whole lot of stuff that I’m not a fan of, I would rather they be that way with me and show their true self than fake it and feel like somehow they’ve won themselves a victory.
There are some students that I know who let their guard down around me even though you might not expect them to. They aren’t Christians. They don’t pretend to be. They say things I would never say, listen to stuff I would never listen to, and do things I would never condone. And yet I don’t jump all over them for it, and they don’t feel like they need to hide it from me. They know where I stand, I know where they stand, and that is that. We just are who we are and we have earned each other’s respect. We might talk about those hard things from time to time, and we might agree to disagree. So be it. I actually love when people are like that with me. It’s the way it should be.
What good can come from being a phoney Christian? There is little to gain and much to lose. A faker forfeits meaningful relationships. They must pretend to be someone they are not. They must lie to cover up whatever they are trying to hide. They carry the stress of putting on the mask at a moments notice, depending on who is in the near vicinity. And worst of all, they feel a measure of peace at hiding the parts of themselves that they deem unholy—and yet this peace is never full because it is a false peace, and they know it. So you managed to fool the pastor (or so you think)? Congratulations! You have succeeded in tricking someone you are not ultimately accountable to at the expense of increasing your guilt before the One you are ultimately accountable to. You have deceived the courtroom, but not the Judge. What gain will come of that?
An old Puritan named Thomas Brooks says this about people who fake their Christianity around people but don’t truly live it from their heart:
“Know that it is not the knowing, nor the talking, nor the reading man —but the doing man, that at last will be found the happiest man. ‘If you know these things, blessed and happy are you if you DO them.’ ‘Not everyone that says, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven—but he who DOES the will of my Father that is in heaven’ (John 13: 17, Matt. 7: 21). Judas called Christ Lord, Lord; and yet betrayed him, and has gone to his place. Ah! how many Judases have we in these days, that kiss Christ, and yet betray Christ; that in their words profess him—but in their works deny him; that bow their knee to him, and yet in their hearts despise him; that call him Jesus, and yet will not obey him as their Lord.”
The one who plays Christianity before men but denies it with their life is no true Christian. That person knows this is true, and God knows this is true. If you succeed in fooling others, all you have done is held off what appears to be the negative consequences of rejecting Jesus in a public way…aka, showing your true colours. Sure, you won’t get judgmental glances from other believers or sighs of disappointment from hopeful parents. But you also will be forsaking the love and friendship and blessing of God, and severing yourself from the Source of true joy and life. In other words, you get sin instead of Jesus, a surefire recipe for long-term misery if ever there was one. Fake people aren’t happy people.
Why bother wearing the mask? Why bother trying to please people who’s approval you probably don’t even care much for? Why be someone you’re not? God sees. God knows. You haven’t fooled him one bit. And truth be told, his opinion is the only one that counts. So just be real and authentic and honest about who you are. You don’t have to be intentionally provocative or needlessly rude about it. But for goodness’ sake, don’t fake it. If you do, everyone loses.